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Castlebar’s humble war hero

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A HERO’S WELCOME Private John Roache pictured outside Castlebar Courthouse in 1918 where he was presented with the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery in World War I. A large crowd was in attendance. Private Roache, in uniform, third from right, front row, is pictured with local dignitaries and some of those who attended the presentation. Pic: Wynne Collection

Edwin McGreal

Though he had some story to tell, Castlebar man John Roache was not the type of man to broadcast his fascinating life.
The MacHale Road man fought for the British in the second Boer War in South Africa as a younger man before going on to fight for them on the Western Front in World War I.
Quiet and unassuming, Roache lived to old age in Castlebar and those who recall him remember a man who never bragged or even talked that much about his past.
It was, locals say, partly due to the stoic nature of Roache’s generation but also a factor were Irish attitudes to the British at the time. To fight for the British Army was not always considered a heroic act in the early years of post-colonial Ireland.
But his story was well-known locally. A huge crowd turned out at Castlebar Courthouse in 1918 when Roache, just back from the Western Front, was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for heroic deeds during World War I.
The daring act of bravery which earned Private John Roache of the Connaught Rangers Regiment the DCM was set out in the London Gazette of August 29, 1917:
“Private John Roache, Connaught Rangers, awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous gallantry in action. When all the bombs of his party were expended and the bomb carrier killed, he volunteered to go back for more bombs. He brought these up across the open under heavy fire. On finding that the enemy had reoccupied part of the trench, he reorganised fresh bombing parties on his own initiative and proceeded to attack it. He only retired when ordered by his superior officer.”
Botha or Bata?
After the war’s end he resumed life in Castlebar as an ordinary citizen.
But his army years never fully left him. He was described in the Castlebar Parish Magazine in 1996 as ‘one of the town’s great characters, a strict disciplinarian with a distinct military bearing’.
He had the nickname Botha which is believed to be after General Louis Botha, one of the main men who fought the British in South Africa. However locals in Castlebar often thought the nickname had a different resonance.
“For many children of that period he was a man to be feared as he worked as a bouncer (attendant) in the local cinema,” wrote Michael Feeney of Mayo Peace Park in the Castlebar Parish Magazine in 2007. “John carried a walking stick and his job was stopping noise and any potential trouble. Many people thought the stick he carried was [how he was] known as Bata – the Irish translation for stick. But the truth was it had relevance to the famous Botha of South Africa,” added Feeney.
Writing in The Connaught Telegraph in 2007, Johnny Mee, also from MacHale Road, testifies to the stick his neighbour used to carry.
“If you stepped out of line (in the cinema) you felt the full force of his walking stick. John was always strong on discipline, a relic of his army training. Old habits die hard,” wrote Mee.  
Keeping youngsters in line in the cinema was surely no trouble to a man who fought in the trenches of the Western Front.
John Roache lived to the age of 93, dying in 1976, well over half a century after the end of the war. His wife Ellen predeceased him by 34 years. The couple had no children and for many years, one of the county’s best known World War I survivors lay in an unmarked grave in Castlebar Old Cemetery.
But efforts by local historian Ernie Sweeney, together with John Basquill, Michael Feeney and members of the extended Roache family changed all of that.
The rededication of the grave of Private John Roache, DCM, and his wife, Ellen, took place in 2008 with an impressive headstone now in place much more becoming of a local man whose heroic deeds earned him the second highest possible medal for gallantry in World War I.

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